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Student-Centered Learning Environments: How and Why

Paul Bogdan

Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
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Editor's Note: Paul Bogdan was once an old-fashioned lecturing teacher centered secondary math teacher who left teaching for 14 years to build computer systems. He has come back and is reborn as a student-centered teacher trying to make a difference and trying to figure out what works in today's classroom. (Updated 01/2014)

Education in our middle schools and high schools these days is rapidly changing. The old notion of a classroom where the students are sitting quietly and neatly in their seats, while the teacher is up front pouring pearls of wisdom and knowledge into their brains is absurd.

Reality in the 21st century is quite a different story. Students seem to know that once a teacher stands up in front of the room and starts "teaching," not only is their life going to get very boring very quickly, the end result will be that there will be more quizzes and tests to fail and more opportunities to end up feeling dumber and dumber. So, how do they cope? They text their friends or get some sleep, or interrupt the teacher with a myriad of cleverly constructed distractions. The teacher who intends to stand in front of a high school or middle school class and "teach" is in a constant battle.

Unfortunately, not all problems have easy solutions. Our students come into the classroom with the same attitudes and expectations as the society in which they live. How could it be otherwise? For many people in America, the Dream Job is one in which they are required to do very little work and get paid mega bucks for doing it. The main objective at work for some people is to avoid work. By example, our youth are taught these same values, or lack thereof. They simply do not understand that education will not occur if they don't get involved. They don't understand that their education is both their responsibility and their right.

The good news, however, is that not all students are so unaware. More and more of society at large, and consequently many students, are demanding an educational system that works for and with them. These students are not bored. They are very curious, eager to learn, and willing to do whatever it takes to learn. I believe that the student-centered learning environment enables an educator to deal effectively with all types of students in the same classroom. A student-centered learning environment encourages students to become independent learners and ultimately to be in charge of their own education.

Are teachers obsolete? Absolutely not. But, an educator's role is changing from the traditional "imparter of knowledge" to that of coach and consultant. There are many exciting examples of successful strategies and programs in which the students are not only allowed, but encouraged and required, to take responsibility for much more of their learning than ever before.

Do-it-yourself, student-to-student teaching, project-based learning, and student-centered learning environments are some of the more encouraging programs. Also, the integration of technology into every subject and at all grade levels allows unprecedented levels and types of exciting collaboration and learner to learner connectivity.

The following are some links to posts by authors who have written about these methodologies.

Do It Yourself (DIY)

Empowering Teachers with DIY (Article, Edutopia)
Room to Learn: An Italian Makeover (Article, Edutopia)
Open Source: A Do-It-Yourself Movement to Change Education from the Bottom Up (Article, Edutopia)

Student-to-Student Teaching

Report from EduBloggerCon at ISTE10: Trends and Tools (Article, Edutopia)
Does your school have a student-to-student mentoring program? (Poll, Edutopia)
Wisdom of the (Multi) Ages: Students Learn by Teaching (Article, Resource)

Project Based Learning (PBL)

PBL Resources (Edutopia Resource)
Introduction to PBL (video)
Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement (Article, Edutopia)

Student-Centered Learning

Student-Centered Learning Strategies for Math and Other Subjects (article)
Student Centered Teaching and Learning (Article, North Carolina State University)
Susan Sample and Student Center-Learning (Video)

Integrating Technology

A Day in the Life of a Connected Classroom (Article, Edutopia)
How Will Technology Change Learning -- and Teaching? (Article, Edutopia)
The Right Way to Use Technology in the Classroom (Article, President Kahn Academy)

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." -- Albert Einstein

It takes a giant leap of faith for a teacher to think that their students can learn the material on their own. Teachers become teachers to teach. It is natural for the teacher to want to force the student to learn. But, this is similar to trying to force the proverbial horse to drink. Think about how many video games people have learned and won, on their own! No one had to "teach" them how; no one had to force them to play. Tina Barseghian wrote a great article about video games and the wisdom that educators can glean from them. In this article she writes the following.

REDEFINE TEACHERS AS LEARNING DESIGNERS. Game designers create well-designed experiences and social interactions. Teachers are designers of learning, and can create experiences tailored to suit their outcome. If we "re-professionalize" teachers as designers, they can create their own scripts for what they want students to learn.

When educators can design learning environments well enough, students will be able to learn mostly on their own. In an environment where the educator is respected for their expertise, and appreciated for their faith in the student's abilities, they will be asked for their help, encouragement and clarification when the student needs it. In turn, the students are appreciated for their willingness to take responsibility, become involved, and do the work needed to succeed. Mutual trust and respect is created rather than confrontation. Change is inevitable and there is a bright new hope on the educational horizon.

A secondary math teacher, Paul Bogdan has over 10 years of experience in the classroom, as well as 8 years in the field of computer systems design. He has a BA in Mathematics and a MA in Multidisciplinary Studies. He grew up in Buffalo New York, and has taught in NY, California, and recently got a credential to teach in Oregon.

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Cari Begin's picture

Yes, Dave, there has to be a place for the teacher to direct the learning and the content. In my experience, this comes in the form of mini-lessons and innovative unit design. We can't expect our students, especially our younger ones, to know exactly where to look for the content and generate the ideas all on their own. I think the debate here is more about making sure that teachers are no longer standing at the front of the class lecturing for an hour, no mater the age group.
We can learn a lot from our our colleagues that teach Kindergarten and 1st grade. They have been forced to be very innovative as the curriculum for these grades has gotten more rigorous. Most of the kindergartners I know can't read a book full of content or a website, let alone sit for a lecture. These teachers are challenged everyday to keep their students engaged and challenged without many of the tools that the rest of us take for granted. I understand that their curriculum isn't packed full of content, but is more skills based instead, yet there are things we can learn from their classrooms.

Benjamin Stewart's picture

@Dave G...I would argue that teaching methodology and student learning are vehicles unto themselves. High school band (for me) was very much project based. The project was to prepare a passage, tune, or concert. Learning an instrument, learning to express oneself through music, and collaborating/cooperating with other band members is all about discovery. Playing jazz music where improvisation is required is all about discovery. A band director does not impart knowledge, skills, or disposition but acts as a "curator" of music and of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the students.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

[quote]Not that I'm against change, but once again the pendulum is changing. I remember this exact learning process when I was in my undergraduate program in the 1970s.[/quote]

Interesting. Can you share a little more about how the pendulum has swung since the 70s? I would think much of the student centered approach now is a reaction against high stakes testing and the quantification of just about everything under the sun. Would love to hear more details from your perspective.

Karla Valenti's picture
Karla Valenti
Empowering parents to empower their children (

Paul - these resources are great. I completely agree that the role of teachers is changing - and quickly! Teachers (and parents for that is a key part of what we do) must learn to be consultants in learning experiences guided by their students/children. With technology being what it is, there is less need for someone to actually convey information. However, there is a huge need for someone to help make the information meaningful. In this day, that is the true value that we, as educators, can bring to the table.

Your posts are always very insightful, thanks!

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Thanks everyone for your great comments and thoughtful insights (keep them coming). I'm in there every day rolling with the punches (happy Friday everyone). The heart of student-centered learning is providing the students with a selection of ways to learn and this usually means alternatives to listening to the teacher talk. The latest idea I got from a comment on my last blog (thanks Sharon) is to provide videos.

So, I looked for some that matched. The book company had some, but not quite what I wanted. So, I started making some. I made videos of my hands doing the examples as I explained. The audio was too quiet and my hands moved too slowly. So, I'm going to speed up the video in places and record a new audio track. (As soon as I have time to learn how to do it and time to do it.)

The hardest part of teaching is getting the kids to do the work that they need to do in order to learn. I am learning more and more about social and emotional learning. I think there may be some insight into how to awaken motivation there. 'August to June' is a movie that I want to see because I think it will have some ideas and insight. Please call Netflix and ask them to get it (I did).

Thanks again.

Ms.B's picture

This style is very similar to professional development that is provided for teachers. Usually when teachers think about professional development we think, "I hope this is going to be fun. I hope we will earn something interesting and new that we can bring into the classroom. I hope this person has had some experience in the classroom." This is the same way students think when the class starts. Involving and engaging students learning through interactions and activities that require them to do some of the work is what makes the learning meaningful. This is the same for professional development. Teachers are now being influenced to give their own workshops to their colleagues because it is more meaningful in the sense that it is coming from within the community. This is a change that is happening not only in the classroom for students but also for teachers. Much planning needs to take place in order to guide students in the right direction. This project based learning is a topic that has come up in my school as well. I Would love to hear more about it so when the time comes I can refer back to ideas and share with coworkers.

Jaymes's picture

I agree that we need to gear teaching more toward student-centers and project based learning. I try to utilize technology every chance I get to keep my students' focus and attention. Computers seem to do the trick. Research shows that I should only "lecture" 20 minutes out of my 50 minute block of time. The rest of the time I fill with projects, student-centers, enrichment activities, and starting homework. I have seen a difference this year in attention and retaining information.

tiffini's picture

I agree the role of teachers is constantly changing. when i was growing up, teachers stood in the front of the room and lectured the whole time. Nowadays, if teachers do that, the attention span of the students is lost. This forces teachers to find what students' are interested in and create a lesson based on that. Lessons need to be engaging so students will perform.

By taking the suggestions that are offered from above, for example, do-it-yourself, student-to-student teaching, project-based learning, and student-centered learning environments the performance will increase and hopefully academic achievement will also increase. It is proven when students are engaged in their learning, they are more susceptible to learn.

Thanks for providing websites with additional information on student centered learning. I am excited to explore those sites and hopefully incorporate some methodologies into my classroom.

Terry's picture

I have moved more toward student based learning in my honors classes this year. I found at first the students were not very willing to cooperate. I had to motivate them and reassure them they will know what they are supposed to know, but they were going to have to do the work instead of me. All year they were use to power points and functional outlines. Taking "good" notes and figuring out how to problem solve was a little hard for them even though they are honors students. In the beginning their assessment grades were low, but have since increased. They are even showing me ways of working out problems that I would not have used. They are showing me functions on their calculators that can help them solve problems. I am learning from them. I tell them I want to know what they are thinking when they solve a problem even if the answer is wrong. I can work with what's wrong and help them figure out from their own work what needs to be corrected to get the right answer.

Ann Sisko's picture
Ann Sisko
Emeritus Classroom Teacher (grades 2/3 - 7/8) in South Brunswick, NJ

Betty, I couldn't find the post you were referring to, but I certainly can respond to your question.

I was hired in 1971 at the height of the pendulum swing in the other direction. My undergraduate training was a mix of the traditional and the innovative.

When I was hired, I was handed the key to a sixth grade elemenary classroom, a set of basal readers and a set of math books. No written curriculum, just the direction to find out what the kids knew and teach them what they didn't know.

That didn't frighten me, it didn't make me anxious, and it didn't make me feel lost and helpless. It was an exciting challenge that I looked forward to meeting.

One of the innovations I wanted to try was using literature instead of basals; so until they basalized literature maybe five years ago, I had taught reading almost exclusively based on individual choice.

I did use the math books. But as time went on, I learned that combining the best of several texts with the resources provided to us by the district math committee yielded the best in terms of student understanding and performance.

I was transferred to a different school after my first year. A wonderful teacher who also was teaching sixth grade took me under his wing -- and the first thing he said to me was, "I don't think of myself as a teacher so much as a learning facilitator." So I learned that lesson early on.

Our 1970's district's policy was to support student-centered learning. One approach was called 'individualized instruction.' It is a direct ancestor of today's 'differentiation.' Another was student choice. Yet another was hands-on learning.

Not only did the district advocate student choice, they gave teachers a choice as well. They trusted teachers to make professional development choices most suited to their own teaching. I learned so much as a new teacher because of that. Those learnings are still with me today.

Starting in 1975, and escalating through 1985, things started to tighten up. I don't know precisely why, except the zeitgeist of the outside culture was becoming more rigid, what with the election of Reagan and a downturn of the economy.

I was on maternity leave in 1985-86 and I saw an enormous change when I returned to the classroom in September 1986. It was the beginning of what we have now. They were starting to lockstep teachers and students; and even though the words were still about being student centered, the reality was quite different -- although in our district, the test pressure didn't build to major intensity until NCLB started getting implemented in the early 2000's.

As you may well guess, student-directed learning started to go by the wayside. Uniformity took precedence. Hands-on learning is still practiced, but endangered. It takes too long, and you have curriculum to cover. Field trips? Too much money. True project based learning? Again, endangered -- it is a shadow of itself due to time and the lack of uniformity. There are projects, but they're narrow and general.

There's much more, Betty. I would love to discuss it with you. Just let me know. But I've used up more space here than is considered polite, so I need to conclude this post.

However, Dave is right about the middle ground. I can see mistakes that we made back in the '70's that could easily have contributed to the slide into where we are now. Probably the most sensible comment that can be made about this is "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." But maybe only people who have lived through it can really see what that means.

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